California's English learners: Can you say 'held back’?
Los Angeles Times
March 21, 2006

By Kelly Torrance

THE LATEST TEST scores of California's English learners show that immigrant children are continuing to do well under English immersion, defying the doomsday predictions by opponents of 1998's Proposition 227. The mandate that schools teach children "overwhelmingly" in English, rather than in their native languages, has resulted in a large, demonstrable improvement in English proficiency.

Last year, more than 1.3 million English learners took the California English Language Development Test. For kindergarteners and first-graders, the exam assesses listening and speaking skills. For second through 12th grades, it also measures reading and writing skills.

In 2005, 47% of California's English learners scored in the top two categories of English proficiency ? "early advanced" or "advanced." By comparison, only 25% scored in the top two categories in 2001, shortly after many school districts began eliminating their bilingual programs. That's a remarkable improvement.

Although many California school districts, including many that were previously resistant to immersion, continue to see improvement, the system has failed to keep pace in the important and often-overlooked area of "reclassification." Proposition 227 called for structured English-immersion programs, followed by a temporary transition period to mainstream instruction "not normally intended to exceed one year."

But California schools are failing to transition English learners to English classes within the required 12 months.

As long as they don't score below "intermediate" on any one section, students with an overall language test score of "early advanced" or "advanced" are considered by the state to be proficient in English. But although almost half of California's English learners scored in these top two categories in the last two years, fewer than one in 10 were reclassified as English-proficient.

In other words, even though these students speak English, many are still being kept out of English-speaking classrooms. Between 2001 and 2005, as proficiency was increasing from 25% to 47%, reclassification inched forward from 7.8% to 9%.

California's lack of good data contributes to the trouble. The state provides only an annual snapshot of its English learners, so it is unclear how many years individual students are trapped in immersion or bilingual programs. Schools also receive additional funds for each student classified as an English learner, giving them an incentive to keep kids out of regular classrooms.

The state Board of Education recognizes the problem."We clearly need to look at why this gap is occurring and determine how to address it," said Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction. He is now urging districts to review their reclassification procedures, which is a step in the right direction. But he hasn't offered any specific guidelines.

Finding better educational solutions for this large and growing segment of the population will be critical - not just for their future but for California's economic future. Students classified as English learners usually do not have access to more challenging curriculums that can better prepare them for college and beyond, such as advanced placement courses that could give them college credit.

The good news is that once immigrant students learn English and attend mainstream classes, they often do very well. Some school districts recognize this and are way ahead of the game. Long Beach Unified, for example, has a reclassification rate of 18%, twice the state average. Others, sadly, are lagging far behind. San Bernardino City Unified and San Juan Unified had reclassification rates of 5.5% and 5.3%, respectively.

"I was just at a high school this morning where students who were reclassified outscored everyone on that campus by far, in English and math," said Elizabeth Hartung-Cole, Long Beach's Eng lish language development curriculum leader for sixth through 12th grades. "Those are kids who obviously worked hard and had to be disciplined to learn a second language."